Saturday, May 31, 2014

Suspiria (1977)

The Movie: American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper of Phantom of the Paradise and, much later, Minority Report) travels to Germany to attend the prestigious Tanz Akademie in Freiburg. If you’re the type who believes in omens, her arrival at the airport presages very bad things. Just walking out of the airport subjects the poor girl to an ominous thunderstorm and a rudely aloof and uncommunicative taxi driver. However, it’s at the school where Suzy’s problems really start; because just as her taxi pulls up to the school, a girl (Eva Axen) runs out the door in fear, shouts something to an unseen person on the intercom, and flees into the forest. When Suzy tries to enter the school, the person on the intercom says that she doesn’t recognize her and refuses to let her in. Meanwhile, the fleeing girl, who we later find out is named Pat Hingle, spends the night with a friend with the intention of leaving forever in the morning. However, Pat’s friend’s apartment isn’t any protection against what Pat is fleeing from; that night a mysterious someone or something enters and brutally murders both women.

The next day Suzy returns to the school, where she is told by the dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli of Eyes Without a Face) that she was expected the night before. Also present is Madam Blanc (Joan Bennett of the original Father of the Bride, believe it or not), the vice-directress, who is discussing the murder of Pat Hingle with some police officers, explaining that the girl was kicked out just yesterday. Suzy quickly finds the staff to be weird and sinister, and the students range from eccentric to, quite possibly, downright insane. Events such as the sudden plague of maggots in the girls’ dorms, and Suzy’s strange sickness and collapse in the dance studio really don’t help matters much.

Suzy finally starts to get some information when she is befriended by Sara (actor and director Stefania Casini of Blood for Dracula). Sara has been noticing some weird things about the school. What’s more, she was friends with Pat Hingle, who also learned some weird things just before she was murdered; and Sara was also the woman on the intercom box the night Suzy arrived. It gradually becomes clear that some powerful evil lurks at the school; and when Sara gets killed, Suzy realizes that she has to figure out what’s going on if she doesn’t want to be next…

The Review:

Dear Readers, this blog has now been up and running for four years! Now, I confess that in recent months I have been slacking off on the entries, for reasons legitimate and not so much; I must apologize for that. However, as I’ve done every year, I feel the need to express my gratitude to those of you who have been reading this blog up to this point; and my sincere welcome and condolences for the inevitable fate of your immortal soul for those of you who are reading this for the first time. Thank you and welcome all!

Confession time Dear Readers: I had to watch Dario Argento’s Suspiria three or four times before I was able to understand why so many people consider it his magnum opus; and indeed, a true classic of the genre. At this point I am of the opinion that Suspiria is a true work of art, as well as a very effective horror movie. However, I will add the caveat that if you’re used to conventional, Hollywood-style movie structure, you may be in for a rough slog.

European movies made during this time, particularly Italian cinema, had a tendency to employ style over substance; imagery and emotion in place of logic or plot cohesion. At its worst, the results of this kind of moviemaking are frustrating and unintelligible. However, at its best the end product rises above a mere movie to be watched, instead becoming an experience to be lived.

As you’ve no doubt guess from my opening paragraph, Suspiria falls into the latter category. The moment Suzy walks off the plane at the beginning; she steps into a waking nightmare and drags us in the audience along with her. Argento does everything he can to play up the sense of unreality, and as a result the lack of logic and plot cohesion enhances the movie rather than detracting from it.

The architecture and décor we see throughout most of the movie is truly beautiful; but at the same time it is quietly foreboding and off. Argento uses a primary color palette, which throws the décor into stark relief; and for some scenes he employs color filters that further enhance the atmosphere. Then there’s the soundtrack, in particular three numbers that are the background music for nearly the entire movie. They are odd, discordant pieces that really don’t work outside Suspiria (as proved by a music video on my special edition DVD), but in the context of the movie are a large part of what establishes the atmosphere and makes it so effective.

The final notable reason for why the film works so well is how Argento, for the most part, tends to eschew traditional horror movie plot elements. Admittedly, there are two or three brutal murders, and the two we see at the beginning are as nasty a horror movie death scene as you could ask for. However, afterwards he tends to employ plot elements that focus more on the unnatural evil of the villains than the deaths themselves. The death of the blind piano player is more atmospheric than brutal, as he’s stalked by something unseen through the empty nighttime streets only to die by a completely unexpected agent. Personally, the maggot scene always causes me to cringe, and the scene where Suzy falls sick and collapses while dancing is one that I find very identifiable. Admittedly, that last one probably owes much to my own medical experiences; but it’s still very well done.

So in conclusion, Suspiria is less a conventional horror movie than a living nightmare on celluloid. There is little logic to much that goes on, but that actually enhances greatly the general feeling of unreality. If you’re interested in a truly great work of horror movie art, and can deal with the fact that it doesn’t follow what most of us consider a traditional plot, make sure you see this one.

One-Eyed Monster (2008)

The Movie: Ten people, including veteran porn stars Ron Jeremy and Veronica Hart (playing themselves), head up into the Northern California mountains to make an adult film. All the weather predictions indicate that a huge blizzard is going to hit them, so the cast and crew are pretty much resigned to being snowed in for the weekend. However, that’s only a small part of what they’re going to have to deal with.

That night, when Ron goes outside for some fresh air between takes, a weird, glowing light falls out of the sky. It heads straight for Ron, and hits him head on. Ron heads back inside feeling a little ill, but the real problems begin when they start rolling again. Suddenly, Ron starts spasming uncontrollably, then collapses and dies. When the crew checks his body, they find that a rather important part is missing; his penis. A check of the film reveals that it seems to have detached it itself from his body and wondered off.

The detached organ very quickly proves itself to be deadly. It seems that some alien force hijacked it, and is using the body part for some nefarious plan. What’s worse, it’s quick to kill whoever gets in its way. Trapped by the blizzard, the surviving cast and crew try to figure a way to trap and destroy the organ. However, this is no ordinary detached, alien-possessed penis, this detached, alien-possessed penis used to belong to Ron Jeremy; who was known for having the biggest and strongest one in the industry…

The Review:

I have a theory. It’s a little way-out, but I saw a dick scurry out of a tailpipe today so I’m willing to consider just about everything.

I’m in the habit of watching the movie previews on my DVDs, and that’s how I discovered this particular little gem. Said preview showed what, at first, appeared to be yet another generic spam in a cabin movie; a small group of people are trapped in an isolated location with a murderous creature, individual or force. However, my interest grew when I realized that this particular group was the cast and crew for and ‘adult’ film, and that the monster was a detached penis possessed by an alien force. The title, One-Eyed Monster, just cemented things; for obvious reasons, I had to see this movie. If the reasons aren’t obvious to you, you must be new to this blog. That’s okay, just take some time to go through some of my older reviews and you’ll get it. Thanks for reading, by the way; it’s good to have you.

I should probably start by disabusing my readers of the idea that One-Eyed Monster is in any way a pornographic movie. Simply put, it’s not. There’s barely any nudity or (implied) sex, the ‘porn’ elements are only plot devices, and the ‘monster’ is obviously special effects. At least, I hope it is. One-Eyed Monster is, at its core, a spam in a cabin flick. For the most part it hits all the usual notes of that subgenre, but there are some interesting exceptions.

One of the two main exceptions is the who and how of the monster’s victims. There are a few exceptions (flaming asshole characters always get it in these movies, it’s just a question of when), but for the most part we don’t know beforehand who will live and who will die. The black guy doesn’t get it first, there’s no wacky practical joker to attempt a prank on the wrong person, and ironically (or maybe not, considering who the characters are), how sexual an individual is has no relevance on their life expectancy. On the one hand, we get a sense of suspense absent from the survival horror flicks where it’s obvious from the beginning who has the big target on their ass. On the other, the whole character’s sex life not having any relevance on their life expectancy means that this movie lacks the judgmental “they deserved it” attitude we find in so many horror movies; which I, personally, find refreshing.

The other main exception is this movie’s sense of humor. One-Eyed Monster is a funny movie; and what’s more, it’s intentionally funny. No movie where everyone isn’t in on the joke would have a scene like the one where the first victim’s roommate comes running in screaming “Angel has a dick in her mouth!”, and then has to add “there’s no one attached it” when her first pronouncement is met with indifference. The whole premise of the movie is ridiculous; as is the how our heroes first try to destroy the monster and how they finally succeed. There are many hilarious lines of dialogue and one-liners, my particular favorite being the conversation between Jeremy and the bus driver at the beginning of the movie.

But here’s the thing, it’s all played straight. One-Eyed monster is obviously meant as a spoof, but all the most ridiculous scenes and lines are played either completely deadpan, or with tongue slightly in cheek. Personally, this is why I find it so funny. These days, ‘spoof’ or ‘parody’ in a movie means playing every joke up in a way that practically screams “look how funny we are! See, this is the joke, this is where you laugh.” I know humor is a subjective thing, but I find it really doesn’t work for me. That way just drips with desperation. The main reason One-Eyed Monster works so well is because they don’t take that route. Everyone’s obviously in on the joke, but nobody is actively treating it like one.

Personally, I’m not big on watching porn; largely due to the fact that watching other people screw bores me to tears. As a result, I’m not all that familiar with Ron Jeremy. I’ve heard the name here and there; and I’ve seen him in cameos in a few other movies I’ve watched, albeit without having a clue of who he was. However, the thing is that I am fascinated by porn as a subject. It’s one of those incredibly controversial subjects that is bound to make people react; even just saying the word porn. While I’m not big on actually watching porn, the fact that it is considered so taboo makes it fascinating for me; which is why I found Jeremy one of the most fascinating parts of this movie.

Ron Jeremy and Veronica Hart are long-time veterans of the porn industry, and they have worked together a very large number of times. Both of these things are very clear in how they carry themselves in the movie. With our first look at them on the bus ride up, it’s clear that these two share a bond. Likewise, when they talk about how the industry has changed, or especially, in the scene where they’re commiserating about how they don’t get any respect anymore, it all seems real in a way that doesn’t require any suspension of disbelief. This authenticity helps ground the movie so that when the more ridiculous elements first show up, they’re much easier to accept. I’d also like to add that there is a feature on the DVD where Jeremy and Hart just sit down and discuss their experiences in the industry, which I, personally, found interesting.

The other individual who caught my eye was Amber Benson as Laura the makeup girl. Benson is fairly prolific these days; not just as an actor, but also as a director, producer, author, scriptwriter, and probably a few other things. Sadly, I mostly know her from her role in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I found Benson’s character to another one of the more interesting parts of the movie. Laura is a socially awkward young woman who nurses a major crush on Jeremy. The thing is Hollywood rarely gets socially awkward right, usually just making the character situationally clumsy and passing that off as awkward. Speaking as a socially awkward individual who has dealt with many others throughout my life, social awkwardness can best be defined thusly: you’re not playing by the expected script. As we grow up we tend to absorb certain expectations about others’ behavior, a script if you will. And it’s not just big things either; most of it consists of little things that should be pointless. Social awkwardness comes in when you or somebody else isn’t behaving by the expectations of those around you. The reasons why vary; it could be because you have a completely different script (such as mentioning to those who don’t get it how and why a somewhat well-adjusted individual might enjoy movies about detached, alien possessed penises), it could be you just have trouble knowing what is expected of you (this is often my problem), or it could be that you just don’t care.

Anyway, Benson as Laura establishes that social awkwardness perfectly and believably. Admittedly, in the other role I know her from; she did socially awkward just as well. However, in Buffy Benson did a kind of cute, lovable, social awkwardness; here she does it with a touch of creepiness. And again, it’s convincing; socially awkward people so often come off as creepy because you don’t know what to expect of them, as they aren’t playing by the expected rules. In short, I found Benson’s Laura to be a convincing character, one I’ve had to deal with (and even been) all too often.

So in conclusion, it’s pretty obvious that I thoroughly enjoyed One-Eyed Monster. The fact that a movie with this premise even got made deserves major kudos; that it turned out so well even more so. If you’re a certain type of person, and you know who you are, this movie is a must see.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rock n' Roll Nightmare (1987)

The Movie: At an isolated Canadian farmhouse; mysterious, demonic forces suddenly appear and slaughter a family of three. After standing unused for ten years, some new occupants arrive. John Triton (body builder, b-movie actor and front man for various heavy metal groups John-Mikl Thor), and his hair metal group the Tritonz, have come for an extended stay to create material for a new album and hopefully get themselves out of the slump they’ve found themselves in. Triton’s reasoning is that they’re away from all the distractions of civilization; although apparently Toronto, a center of culture, is just down the road. The rest of the group isn’t so enthusiastic. They include: Stig (Jim Cirile), is the asshole drummer, who has brought his uber-bitch girlfriend Lou Anne (Jillian Peri). Lead guitarist Roger Eburt (Frank Dietz) has brought his new wife Mary (Liane Abel), and they are using this as their honeymoon. Nerdy bassist Max (David Lane) and Dee Dee (Denise Dicandia), the only female band member, have been making eyes at each other, but so far been too shy to do anything about it. Rounding out the group are Randy (Teresa Simpson), Triton’s seemingly perpetually unsatisfied girlfriend, and Phil (Adam Fried, uncredited), the geeky, nebbish manager for the band. You know, I’m no musician, but I already see two or three problems with this setup; and they have nothing to do with the demonic forces infesting the house. Nevertheless, we’ll go with it for now.

The Tritonz settle in, but almost immediately get set upon by the demons. One by one, unnoticed by anyone else until it’s too late, the Tritonz and their paramours get killed and/or possessed. However, not all is what it appears to be, and John Triton has a few surprises of his own…

The Review:

Yes… that’s where I’ve seen that nerdy bass player."

I’m not going to sugar coat this, Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare is a terrible movie in almost every particular. Written and produced by, not to mention starring, John-Mikl Thor; this movie is obviously an amateur project with a microscopic budget, with everything that entails. However, it is also a movie that I get a lot of enjoyment from; and that I make a point of rewatching every so often.

The script is full of horror movie clichés, inconsistencies, and plot holes you could drive a truck through. For example, the farmhouse and grounds look rather well maintained after ten years of abandonment; and if it was abandoned that long, how the hell was a recording studio set up in the barn, much less one where people like Alice Cooper have worked? The characters, like any group of slasher movie meat, are completely oblivious to what’s going on around them until it’s too late. In fact, also like in the majority of slasher movies since 1980, for the most part they seem to mainly be motivated by the goal of getting into each other’s pants.

Added to this is the typical amateur lack of pacing. Just after the beginning credits we get an overly long scene of the band’s van driving to the farmhouse. Seriously, we just see the van driving while music plays. And speaking of music, this was actually Thor’s band at the time, and there are at least two or three full performances of some of their songs. It’s definitely not great music, to say the least. Having said that, I’m not ashamed to admit that I got a hold of the movie’s soundtrack when I found that it was available, and that I still can’t get enough of the song played over the final battle. Take that, good taste!

The effects are obviously very low budget, consisting of rubbery monster masks, the kind of makeup you can buy around Halloween, and some crude puppetry. One of my personal favorite parts of this movie is the extremely phallic, demonic sock puppets (that’s honestly the best way I can describe them) that seem to make up the majority of the minions of darkness, and that I, personally, find way too cute to be in any way scary or threatening. The question of the gore effects can be answered with the question ‘what gore effects?’ Nearly all the deaths are off-screen, and even the one or two that we do see make it clear that this project didn’t have the money for a proper horror movie death scene.

The acting talents on display range from slim to none. There are a (very) few exceptions, which I will get to shortly, but overall these really aren’t actors. Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare tries to compensate with everybody’s favorite exploitation movie fallback; gratuitous nudity. Unfortunately, these are, overall, people you really don’t want to see naked. I’m sure there are quite a few women, and even some men, who would greatly appreciate some of the scenes of Thor. However, as a straight male with very definite aesthetic preferences, it doesn’t do anything for me.

So why do I get so much enjoyment out of this movie if it’s so terrible? Two reasons. The first is the ending. I am not going to spoil it for you, but the climax of the movie makes the rest of it worthwhile. The big surprise twist is just weird, inspired, and batshit enough to make up for all the crap leading up to it; and it actually provides a logical (within the plot) explanation for all the overused horror movie tropes and a number (though by no means all) of the plot holes and discrepancies. The climactic battle that follows pulls out all the stops on the crappy special effects. There are a lot of reviews online that will spoil the twist for you, that happened to me before I saw it, but they really won’t do a thing. This is one of those things that has to be seen to be believed, and being told beforehand won’t prepare you for it.

The other major element that Rock n’ Roll Nightmare has going for it, despite all of its shortcomings, is John-Mikl Thor himself. He’s not a great actor by any stretch, but his unfeigned enthusiasm for the project shines through whenever he’s on screen. I learned young that when an artist of any kind is truly enjoying his work, that, more often than not, goes a long way toward covering for any deficiencies said work might otherwise have. I would argue that Rock n’ Roll Nightmare serves as concrete proof of that simple fact.

Alongside Thor’s enthusiasm, a look at the time in which this movie was made puts it in a very different light. The U.S. in the late 1980s saw something which many people know as ‘the Satanic Panic’. Basically, Right-wing extremism combined with residual Cold War paranoia, irresponsible shock journalism, and no doubt some other elements as well, to give way too many people the idea that a conspiracy (or more) of literal devil worshippers was working to subvert and destroy our society. As is always the case in these matters, just about every form of youthful nonconformity became a target of zealous moral crusaders.

I was in second grade come 1990, so I only had any personal experience with the tail end of the Panic. My own experiences were moving out to a small town in rural Idaho and discovering that my beloved hobby of Dungeons and Dragons was considered by many to be a form of Satanism. I spent much of my early adolescence looking for that one role-playing game I kept hearing about that would lead me to practicing black magic, devil worship, and deviant sex acts. Not for the first time in my life, or the last, my hopes were raised up only to be cruelly dashed. Now, in my early 30s, I remain an enthusiastic tabletop RPG geek (although contrary to popular stereotype, I do have a place of my own and a social life outside of gaming); but I have long had to accept the fact that, as with so many other important issues, the Right lied to me.

However, the main target for these moral crusaders was probably the music genre of heavy metal. From the very beginning the rock genre, and more blatantly so, its heavy metal offshoot, has been all about rebellion and tweaking those in authority. However, when the moral panic hit way too many people decided that heavy metal was, quite literally, the Devil’s music. The late ‘80s saw community record burnings, rumors about subliminal messages hidden in the albums, and Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest actually getting sued for their music causing fans to commit suicide (I’ve been a Judas Priest fan for roughly a decade, nothing yet). It culminated in Tipper Gore, the wife of former vice-president and president elect, Al Gore, actually holding senate hearings to control this “dangerous” music. Among other things, she’s the reason albums always have those ridiculous parental advisory stickers these days.

Looked at within the framework of its time period, it’s clear that Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare was made with the specific purpose of refuting all these accusations the genre faced. Just look at our heavy metal protagonists: We have a married couple who’s trying to balance their new married life with his job in the band. We have a pair of band-mates who obviously have a thing for each other, but thus far have been too shy to do anything about it. One gets the impression that the manager specifically became a manger because he’s always been a fan and wanted to be involved in the action despite his personal lack of musical talent. Yeah, Stig and Lou Anne are assholes; but they’re the exact kind of asshole you’re going to encounter no matter what social circle you’re a part of. Lack of acting talent gets in the way somewhat, but this is still the impression the movie gets across to us. I know it’s boring compared to the popular fantasies involving drug-fueled orgies with groupies, but it’s probably a lot more realistic. Finally, we are given a front man who’s enthusiasm, despite his limited acting talent, requires no suspension of disbelief whatsoever, for the very simple reason that it’s not acting. Add to this the fact that Satan himself is the villain behind the horrors (that’s not a spoiler), and that the climactic final battle pits him against a heavy metal front man, and you get a clear idea of the argument this movie was trying to make.

So in conclusion, Rock n’ Roll Nightmare is a pretty terrible movie in nearly all particulars, and definitely not for everyone. However, there are some us who really like terrible movies; I wouldn’t have been inspired to write this blog if that wasn’t the case. Finally, Thor’s genuine and clearly visible enthusiasm for the project and that innovatively batshit twist and climax at the end raise this movie from being merely forgettably terrible into something memorably terrible; and even, for some of us, well worth watching.